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Hearing the wood for the trees


I realised, when I was recently transcribing a recorded coaching session (with the agreement of the client), how tangled and mangled our speech can be. As I listened to the hour-long audio recording, with a highly engaged young entrepreneur, I struggled to type an accurate transcript of what I was hearing through my headphones. I had to start, stop and go back, again and again, to listen to short passages. It was a challenge to get not only all the words but also all the ‘er’s, ‘um’s and ‘ah’s, and the half-begun but not finished words. I was surprised, and even a little shocked, at how great a proportion of what was being uttered was irrelevant noise compared with meaningful speech.


And yet, at the time of the session, I fully understood what the client was saying; my experience was of someone who was lucid and articulate. So, what’s going on here? Why is it that, ‘in the moment’, I was experiencing a clear and uninterrupted conversation flow that was engaging and sensible.


It’s a great example of the difference between perception and reality – between expectation and actual delivery – in communication, and in particular aural communication. In any natural conversation, what we receive as sound waves into our ears is a mishmash of words, vocalised noises, external clatters and ambient sounds. And yet, at lightning speed, and in real-time, we have to decode and understand the sounds, consider what message was intended, and reflect on the broader context of the conversation.


It’s no surprise that the process of talking can often result in false starts, abandoned half-words, stammers, and thought-enabling pauses. In active conversation, it’s usual that we speak when spoken to and that encourages us – to use a well-coined phrase – to “open our mouths before putting our brains into gear”. But as a listener, we can filter out the padding and the noise and only hear the real and meaningful words. Even one minute of transcribing a recorded conversation, trying to note down every sound made by the contributors, reveals just how fast, effective and unconscious is the audio editing in which we are engaged.


So why are we so well-equipped to weed out the nonsense from noise to leave just meaning? What is behind “hearing only what we want to hear”?


Winifred Gallagher (‘Rapt – Attention and the focused life’), makes the point that we have only a given and finite resource pool of attention and if we use too great a proportion of that on one thing we have less available to focus on other things. That’s true of the concentration needed for an in-depth discussion, where we have both to understand the meaning of what is being said to us and to formulate what we might say in reply; all the while thinking forward to our desired outcome from the exchange. To cope with this limited resource of attention, we pre-determine and anticipate much of what our collocutor might say. That means, rather than listening to and decoding the words one by one, we check how closely the words and phrases match our expectation. As each word or phrase comes to us, we fit them, like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, into place.


It shows how overriding is our human drive to make sense of what our senses are telling us. All our learning and our experience creates an unconscious bias for ignoring reality and instead perceiving and acting on what we assume is happening. In extreme situations it’s what keeps us alive: we hear the movement of a dangerous predator above the rustle of the undergrowth, we see the movement of the falling rock above the mountain path, we smell the burning wood of an approaching firestorm. But in everyday encounters, this unconscious perceptual bias can lead us to false assumptions, unreasonable conclusions and inappropriate behaviour.


My experience, with the transcription exercise, was to listen to a stream of speech out of context; I was not part of the conversation but was concentrating on accurately capturing every sound: words, half-words and non-words. You might expect me to have been able to pick up each of the pieces in isolation because, not being in the flow of the dialogue, I had no need to filter for meaning. But try as I might, I found it very difficult to exactly capture and type the sounds that were being made. Instead, as I reviewed my transcript, phrase by phrase, against a stopping and starting of the audio recording, I realised I was missing whole strings of repeated um’s, ah’s, stuttering words and repeated phrases.


This all just goes to show how incredibly powerful is our unconscious filtering mechanism and to what efforts we need to go to override it.


As a business coach, I find one of the recurring causes of disunity and disengagement in the workplace is a failure of colleagues to use ‘open listening’ in their interactions with each other. It happens peer to peer, upwards and downwards in organisational hierarchies, and within and between different teams and disciplines. When one individual has pre-judged the intention of another or has formed an opinion about that person’s beliefs or values, they then will filter out anything they say that doesn’t fit that script: ‘closed listening’. And as they respond inappropriately or ineffectively, so their colleague may do the same and therefore the misunderstanding is compounded.


The challenge is to develop the ability to unpick intended meaning from the way it is delivered (and by who) in any exchange so that there is clarity and fidelity in the communication. But, given the power of our built-in ‘editor’, it is not enough just to have a good ear and good conscious intentions to hear and understand what is being said to us; we have to practise and perfect the unconscious facility for listening without bias or preconception. It’s a facility that has to be founded on positive beliefs about respecting the way other people think and speak – and the way they listen, comprehend and react.


Respect, patience, tolerance and a positive mindset that looks for common ground and shared meaning, in spite of differences in ways of forming ideas and expressing them, is key to appreciating and getting value from every dialogue. So, it’s not just the natural skill of editing the ‘um’s’ and ‘ah’s’ – hearing the words for the noises – it’s the deeper commitment to hearing the meaning within the words.